Requiem for a Flag-Waver


As I was saying. Why complain if a jazz festival is no more than a congested confluence of concerts? JVC followed on the heels of Texaco (discussion of jazz is fated forevermore to sound like Madison Avenue adspeak) and lay over the city like a shroud. People were still asking me when it would open as it was closing. Critics made the rounds glassy-eyed and somnambulant, shoulders set in permanent shrugs, as if to say don’t ask before anyone could. Buzz? There was no buzz–no can’t-wait-to-hear-that or what-a-cool-idea-for-a-concert or wasn’t-that- amazing. As always, there were moments: I won’t soon forget Al Grey’s ”Black and Blue” or Clark Terry reviving his brass duets, or especially Joao Gilberto, who isn’t a jazz musician but made almost everyone else look like an amateur or…ran out of things I won’t soon forget. Will consult notes.

The festival began with six concerts at the Kaye Playhouse, a pleasingly petite theater that fosters specialty ideas that can barely make a dent in Carnegie, Avery Fisher, or Symphony Space–unlike the Brazilians and Cubans, who accounted for at least five major events in the halls that used to present Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Stan Getz, all now passed. Last year’s Kaye series was an imaginative success, mixing mainstream and jazz rep, so they did it again, only without the imagination. The almost exclusive focus on prewar (as in WW II) styles had, inevitably, a valedictory effect, combining memory and desire with the morbid fear that some venerated players might not be around much longer, which is one reason I felt obliged to be there. Still, when a tribute to Fats Waller got underway with Al Grey in a wheelchair and Clark Terry on the arm of an aide, the desire to pay homage was undercut by a dismay at seeing great men working at a fraction of their capacities. And yet whatever was ailing them did not affect their lungs, embouchure, or brains; along with 82-year-old guitarist Al Casey, who recorded with Waller, and 75-year-old pianist Ralph Sutton, who imbibed those records until they were part of his motor memory, they salvaged an inaugural concert that, conceptually, was more requiem than flag-waver.

For the first set, the accent was on Waller the songwriter and singer. That became evident as soon as impresario George Wein sat himself at the piano and warned that he would do the singing. Wein is an amiable Teddy Wilson–inspired pianist who has led some fine all-star ensembles without doing damage, but if he were forced to eat with his left hand he’d soon shrink to the size of Michael Dorf. Waller without a left hand isn’t Waller, no matter how many choruses you lay down of ”Honeysuckle Rose” or how desperately Clark Terry mugs ”Your Feet’s Too Big.” And ”Black and Blue” is no song for a vocal dilettante, especially following an Al Grey solo that left nothing to add. His tone and pitch steady as you go, Grey used the slide and mute to inflect every note with the befitting mwahhh or grrrr. On ”Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” Terry, his sound improbably restored and buffed, did a routine he made famous in the ’60s, trading phrases and then pitches between flugelhorn and muted trumpet, and it was as funny and handsomely executed as ever. The unassuming Al Casey played sliding chords and swinging fillips with a quietly rocking outlook that made you wonder if he knows it isn’t 1939 anymore.

The cast changed for the second half (Kenny Davern, Warren Vache, Howard Alden), but belonged to Ralph Sutton, if not the finest living stride pianist then certainly the most individual. Most of the form’s practitioners play with braggadocio, chatting away or puffing on a cigar as though their hands were independent contractors–wind them up and off they go. Sutton’s signature is an almost conservatory seriousness as he plots every lateral sweep of the left hand and dancing conceit of the right with meticulous care, his sound luminously solid, his rhythm unshakable. Much of his appeal lies in his infallibility; untouched by modernity, his music is ripe with the faded elegance and flourishes of another world, yet he’s a bear for abstracting melody and hallelujah finishes. He played Willie the Lion Smith’s ”Echoes of Spring” with driving lyricism. On Waller’s ”Viper’s Drag,” he stressed the contrast between the ominous prowl of the opening and the elated stride that follows, much as he emphasized the contrast between boogie tension and melodic release in Waller’s ”Alligator Crawl.”

For the rest of the Kaye series, bright moments were rarer still. Predictability ruled. Herb Ellis deserves his tribute, but did it have to be played–as Barney Kessel’s was last year–exclusively by guitarists, with bass and drums for ballast? At least open the gates to some fresh faces, maybe even a couple of mavericks–Ulmer, Ribot, Morris, Malone, Whitfield….Not that it isn’t a pleasure to hear Mundell Lowe’s moonlit melodies or Ellis’s twangy blues. But after a while you feel like you’re at temple, expected to don a tallislike guitar strap before entering. The concert that thriftily combined homages to Jimmy McPartland and the team of Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo was too thrifty by half. Warren Vache played the trumpet part in a pro forma set of Chicago-style Dixieland with a few standouts: Marian McPartland’s delicate ”Singin’ the Blues,” handsomely harmonized and paced with a chiming finish; trombonist Bobby Pratt making hay on ”Louisiana”; Howard Alden’s ”Davenport Blues,” cleverly arranged for solo guitar with a bass line in the manner of George Van Eps and tricky chords. Alden, who played well all week, resisting the temptation to answer showy technique with showy technique, inadvertently triggered the best line at the Harold Arlen tribute, at the outset of a duet on ”If I Only Had a Brain,” with Ken Peplowski, who turned to the audience as Alden wrapped himself up in a dense cadenza and said, ”If I only had a brain I’d know what he was playing.” Carol Sloane was in good voice. People who can play well played well.

Twenty years ago, George Wein would not have reduced Mildred and Red to one set featuring singer and pianist Daryl Sherman. He would have brought in an orchestra to play the Eddie Sauter arrangements, the best vibes players in the world, and the kind of musicians who could make ”Dance of the Octopus” shimmer all over again, so that you’d leave the hall knowing why a salute was in order. That said, Sherman has locked into something in exploring her affinity for Mildred, whose supple phrasing, lilting tones, and knowing time she captures with feeling and charm. Unfortunately, she was backed by an ensemble that would have been more appropriate for Lee Wiley, who married into Chicago Dixieland rather than modernistic swing; it all but drowned her out on ”Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry,” causing her to overemphasize her vibrato, lose her footing, and glance at her watch. She recovered nicely on ”Lover Come Back to Me,” until the band charged her on the outchorus, and ”There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” expertly supported by Randy Sandke.

The tribute to Dick Gibson, who died earlier that week, was another missed opportunity. No one remarked onstage who Gibson was or why he was worth saluting; at the very least, one expected a few dozen anecdotes–Gibson was the anecdotal man, as teller and subject. Wein’s remark that he was important for starting a party circuit that provided musicians with work was spectacularly short of the mark. Putting aside the careers revived or spurred and the bands created during the 30 annual Colorado jazz parties lavishly thrown by Gibson and his wife Maddie (who was in attendance), they had an incalculable influence on the international revival of the mainstream jazz Wein fuels his festival with. And if Gibson proved less than brilliant in watching out for his own finances, he never stinted on jazz–I can’t imagine Wein (or anyone else) flying Trummy Young from Hawaii for annual duets with Vic Dickenson, matching Joe Venuti with Zoot Sims, delivering Carl Fontana from pit band hell or John Collins from studio obscurity, or arraying the stage with 11 trombonists (okay, that last one is a little iffy). ”The First Ever New York Jazz Party,” as it was billed, offered several players who I doubt would have made the Gibson cut, and failed entirely to capture the mix-and-match madness he mischievously forced on beboppers and Dixielanders alike. A few musicians actually seized the day and fanned mainstream embers: Urbie Green and Slide Hampton on ”Blue Monk”; Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden on ”Three Little Words”; Kenny Davern on ”Moonglow”; Joe Wilder on ”Squeeze Me”; Jerry Jerome with that old-time timbre on ”Pennies From Heaven.” But the evening never caught fire.

You wouldn’t exactly say that Joao Gilberto caught fire either. As Jon Pareles wrote in the Times, he ”may well be the coolest man alive.” Without fanfare (no blathering DJs for him), he walked out onstage with his guitar, acknowledging the standing ovation with a nearly imperceptible bow, and then played 90 minutes of bossa nova, never availing himself of the bottled water by his chair on an otherwise bare stage, and never responding to the crowd, which after the first hour or so was beginning to levitate. Pareles reported, ”and once, just once, he smiled.” I must have been scribbling–missed it completely. On the very last number, he introduced his daughter, singer Bebel Gilberto, who, lifting her microphone, said, ”Good evening.” A ripple of laughter rolled over the audience; except for Joao’s mumbled introduction, they were the first (and last) words spoken all night.

At 67, Gilberto is, if possible, even more economical than when he made those groundbreaking albums with Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. He’s so spare that every gesture is magnified. Only late in the evening did he play an instrumental chorus, otherwise declining even pickups and breaks. Each piece was an intimate communion of voice and guitar, understated yet glistening, his rhythms enameled in their certainty, his embellishments supple but contained. He expended no apparent energy, though the music requires great energy–the lyrics are wordier than in American songs and the melodies subtly insular, focused almost entirely in the midrange with higher and lower notes that Gilberto finessed as casually as he appeared to do everything else. At the 1964 Carnegie Hall concert with Getz (Getz/Gilberto #2), the saxophonist rather haplessly tried to explain the secret of the man he kept referring to as ”the great artist,” first suggesting that he refrains from injecting his personality into the songs, then instantly backtracking at the absurdity. Getz was right: he’s there and not there, singing as though he didn’t need to breathe, the voice a warm, barely vibrating string-instrument drone. He sang both volumes of the Getz collaboration, ”S’Wonderful” (his only number in English), and others, and when you filed out of Carnegie, you knew you had seen something.

You knew also that Carnegie Hall will pick up every whisper of musicians who treat it right. The place was back to normal for the Roy Haynes and Chick Corea concert. Haynes’s new trio with Danilo Perez played a powerhouse set and should be recorded, beginning with Monk’s ”Bright Mississippi” and continuing with such standards as ”I Hear a Rhapsody” and ”It’s Easy To Remember,” a reminder of the value to be found in the harmonic steeplechases of good songs. The great drummer, in a chartreuse suit and exhibiting his usual cockiness, exerted a geometrical control over the arrangements, but the trio waxed and waned as a unit and left me wanting more. Whereas I was sated by Chick Corea’s Origin, which is peppery and inventive and mines several moods, from Spanish-tinged lyricism (”Hand Me Down”) to dauntless sentimentality (”Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”). The problem is that, as a soloist, Corea greatly outdistances his three wind players (altoist Steve Wilson is most distinctive), so that their lengthy perorations are often dead air. Other new bands were also shaky: violinist Regina Carter, turning away from funk pablum, exhibited energy, humor, and a vocalized timbre, but her show-off pianist needs to be spanked into line–his cadenza on ”Don’t Explain” was opaque and incoherent–and Rodney Jones is too good a guitarist to be recycling Wes Montgomery charts. Kenny Garrett, who shared the show with her at Symphony Space, was similarly bent on recycling John Coltrane, less so in a version of ”Giant Steps” than in a couple of originals; nor did his amiable chanting (”as we travel through space”), gospel and blues licks, and handclapping cadenza add up to much.

On the other hand, Celia Cruz–in great form, her vibrato rolling rs like a drill–and Tito Puente couldn’t be anyone but themselves if they tried. Arturo Sandoval, opening for them, did an exciting if overlong meditation on Dizzy Gillespie, with triple-tongue scat singing, but couldn’t resist synthesized strings on numbers only a record label could love. The Cubans, as usual, played to a packed, exuberant house at Carnegie Hall, suggesting a problem for JVC, or BET, which bought Festival Productions. These days, not many gringos do nearly as well, so that Latin musicians now have taken over Mel Torme’s old job, albeit for a different audience–guaranteeing a moneymaker. The mainstream is in twilight. Jazz missed a beat in the 1965–75 period; struggling against the rock hegemony with the avant-garde or fusion, it produced few mainstream stars. The only solution is creative producing, a Wein strong suit when the festival represented something of an annual world series of the art. Festivals still thrive in Europe, and not avant-garde festivals, either. Putting aside Sonny Rollins, who won’t participate, you have to wonder where were Tommy Flanagan, Geri Allen, the Heath Brothers, David Murray, and two dozen others. In New York, however, JVC is looking yellow around the gills. Another year like this one, and it will be a miracle if anyone takes note.